Mafia and Prostitution in Calabria, C.1880−C.1940

Introduction: A ‘dirty business’

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The rules operative in the two major oath-bound criminal brotherhoods or mafias in Italy today, Cosa Nostra (Sicily) and the ’ndrangheta (Calabria), are notoriously flexible.1 Antonino Calderone, a Sicilian mafioso who gave evidence in the late 1980s, reflected frequently on these rules; appropriately, his views were themselves flexible. At times he states that the mafia’s codes are ‘a bit like the laws of a state’; at other times he emphasizes the human factors that shape their interpretation:It should not be forgotten that the mafia is, indeed, the Mafia: the organization of all the men who have taken the oath; and it has precise rules. But it is still made up of men. And men have their preferences, dislikes and animosities. Even when they have senior positions in the organization.Elsewhere, Calderone all but dismisses the rules: ‘Mafiosi have a whole bunch of rules but then, in reality, they continually break them’.2 What Calderone exemplifies here, without quite being able to articulate it, is that rules can be important to his criminal network even when not universally obeyed: they can be tools of internal politics for bosses and badges of shared identity for affiliates.

However, Cosa Nostra has one rule that is strictly observed. Calderone considers it axiomatic:The [Sicilian] mafia doesn’t run prostitution, because it’s a dirty business. Can you imagine a Man of Honour living as a pimp, an exploiter of women? Maybe in America mafiosi have got involved in this business … But in Sicily the mafia just does not do it, full stop.3The Sicilian mafia’s aversion to the easy and constant profits of the sex industry is something of a puzzle. Prostitution is a market where there is a high demand for ‘protection’;4 and the risks and penalties are low compared to, say, narcotics.

A historical perspective shows the ban on prostitution to be even more intriguing. The Sicilian mafia today comprises many of the same families, is organized along the same lines, uses the same rituals and adopts the same tactics as the mafia groups brought to trial in the late nineteenth century.5 The taboo against pimping is another such continuity. In records that stretch back beyond Italian unification, there is nothing that suggests that, in their core territory in the Palermo hinterland, mafiosi have everbeen involved in exploiting prostitution.6 

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